The Godfather of Satellites: Arthur C. Clarke and the Battle for Narrative Space in the Popular Culture of Spaceflight, 1945-1995
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In February 1945, Arthur C. Clarke penned a Letter to the Editor of Wireless World magazine titled “V2 for Ionospheric Research?” wherein he suggested that the V2 rocket could act as a means to launch an ‘artificial satellite’ capable of relaying global television coverage. Clarke’s envisioning of the geostationary communication satellite earned him the cultural distinction as the “father” or “inventor” of satellites and Clarke, the self-proclaimed “Godfather” of satellites, would remain an avid advocate, advisor, speaker, promoter, and popularizer of satellite technology for the entirety of his career – beginning with this representation of the V2 as a benevolent taxi for imagined television satellites with immense commercial potential. Human spaceflight and deep space exploration have long controlled the narrative space within the popular culture of spaceflight. Yet the satellite, growing in complexity and necessity year after year, remained largely unknown to the man on the street, its services quickly taken for granted, and Clarke sought to rectify that. But just as the rocket before it, the satellite was born from and was often associated with the military, and Clarke investing decades rejecting the common military rationale for developing space technologies. Rather, Clarke would represent satellites as “weapons of peace,” not pieces of weapons, better exploited for the benefit of humanity than national security. While Clarke’s science fiction and work with Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey has yielded historical attention, his public advocacy has not. Further still, his work specifically popularizing satellites is but a footnote, yet it held a significant proportion of his professional endeavors. Using primary source material from the NASA History Division archives, the Arthur C. Clarke Collection (the “Clarkives”) at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and many of Clarke’s publications over the years, the scope and scale of his satellite advocacy becomes clear. Clarke maintained correspondence with NASA Administrators, former astronauts and cosmonauts, Congressional and industry leaders, prominent space scientists, and Walter Cronkite; he spoke before the US Congress, the United Nations, UNESCO, and the Pope; and he wrote in great abundance, with over twenty publications in Playboy alone. Building upon previous work that showcases how the popular culture is an inspiration for and driver of public and private space policy and investment, this analysis will examine: In what ways did Clarke represent satellites and what was his intention for representing them as such? To what extent were his satellite representations integrated into his visions of the human future in space? Who was his audience and what outcome, public and policy, was he trying to encourage? And how, and why, his representations evolved over time – from the space age utopian dreams of human space exploration, to the globalized, Earthbound post-Apollo Period, into the era of the US Space Shuttle and the exploitation of low-Earth orbit. This thesis will show that throughout his career, Clarke represented the satellite as the key to achieving the Space Age dream of solar system colonization. To Clarke, the satellite was the foundational infrastructure necessary for any human endeavor in space. Satellites facilitated an internationalized, global space effort and provided achievable short-term projects that yielded tangible down to earth benefits that drove investment and established public need. Clarke worked tirelessly to disassociate the satellite from its affiliation as a piece of Cold War weaponry and recast it as a “weapon of peace” in service of present-day stability and prosperity, and a vital component to the establishment of the limitless frontier of space.